Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Yes and a Warning

Black or White hit movie theaters this weekend. I wasn't so sure about this one - Kevin Costner's track record has been a bit spotty as of late, but Octavia Spencer tends toward the fabulous, so in I went. The film is not without a few problems - Jeremiah's (played the always reliable Anthony Mackie) speech to Reggie about his being a stereotype came across as a little pat to me - but the film is willing to tackle some tough issues without being After School Special-simple. Truly, the issues presented here are not black or white. A quick summary - Elliot (Kevin Costner) and his wife have been raising their bi-racial granddaughter since birth - their daughter died in childbirth and the father is addicted and shiftless. However, he comes from a good family who values hard work and when Elliot's wife dies in a car accident, Rowena (the paternal grandmother, played by Octavia Spencer) decides that Elliot can't raise the child alone and sues for full (not shared) custody.

I saw this in a crammed theater and the audience loved the twists. Elliot has money and can provide a host of creature comforts that Rowena can't, but she has a house full of children closer to Eloise's age and family matters. Both of them genuinely love little Eloise and want what's best for her - they just disagree on what that is. Reggie (Eloise's father) is a screw-up of the first order, the black sheep in this motivated, close-knit family, although you sense that he really does want to be a loving, responsible father, but he has absolutely no clue how to do that. And Elliot and Reggie have a couple of things in common that won't look good in open court.

I'm going to single out Paula Newsome, who plays the judge presiding over the custody case. She's to-the-point, but also compassionate and droll, so her character got several of the bigger laughs in this film, which always tinges the serious issues it's taking on with humor. And keep your eye on Mpho Koaho, who plays Eloise's tutor. He's going places. Not necessarily a big screen must-see, but Black or White is a solid effort and a gem to find in the doldrums of late winter, when studios often dump their stray dogs on screens across the land.

Speaking of stray dogs, I also saw The Loft this weekend. No, I'm not including a link. Or a picture. Or much of anything at all. (We were the only two people in the theater, which should have told me something.) The actors deserve better and goodness knows the movie-going public deserves better for their hard-earned cash than this contemptible mess of "Bros Before Hos" that is being foisted on you. It's not enough to not go to see this film, as a humanitarian gesture, you need to pull people who are thinking about going to see it out of the ticket line. They'll thank you later for saving them seven bucks and 108 minutes of their life. Seriously, in the first five minutes, I was stunned at one of the film's basic premises, which seemed to be "All of us are successful, well-off men, yet none of us have ever, in 20 years, watched enough Law & Order to know to ask for a lawyer when a dead blonde winds up in our shared love-nest." And it goes downhill from there. And when it reaches rock-bottom, it starts digging. Please stay away.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Third Age Thursday 13

“The Babylon Project was our last, best hope for peace. A self-contained world, five miles long, located in neutral territory. A place of commerce and diplomacy for a quarter of a million humans and aliens. A shining beacon in space, all alone in the night. It was the dawn of the Third Age of mankind. The year the Great War came upon us all. This is the story of the last of the Babylon stations. The year is 2259. The name of the place is Babylon 5." -- John Sheridan


That's right - I'm now well into Season 2 of my detailed re-watch of Babylon 5. (See how the opening quote has changed?) The re-watch is part of my research for Dreams Given Form, which will be an unprecedented guide to the universe of JMS's brilliant, long-arc show that I'm co-authoring for ECW Press, scheduled to be released sometime in 2016. As I've said here before, deeply re-watching Season 1 brought me new insights, including an almost complete revising of my opinion about the character of Jeffrey Sinclair. (Further, knowing what we now know about the seven hells Michael O'Hare, the actor who brought Sinclair to life, was going through, I get chills watching a few scenes in that season, I can tell you. Not sure what I'm talking about?  Click here.) 

But for now, Sinclair is serving as Earth's first ambassador to Minbar and John Sheridan has been plucked from his rootin', tootin', shootin' command of a Omega-class destroyer to ride herd over the diplomatic squabbles of dozens of races on B5. It's a post he's not especially suited for, in part because of his role in the Earth-Minbari war, in which he managed to destroy the Minbari flagship through trickery. That action made him a hero on Earth, but the Minbari refer to him as "Starkiller," making him a very unlikely choice to command B5. 

However, life is strange and it'll get stranger. But now it comes with oranges!

PS - I should probably mention at this point that Sheridan [along with Buffy] served at the cake-topper at my wedding. Make of that what you will.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Of Goyas and Marmalade

Two new releases that seem very different, yet are tied together by a definite sense of Britishness, are the focus for this post.

First up is Mortdecai, headlined by Johnny Depp and a X-ray-thin Gwyneth Paltrow. (Seriously, a person could be injured if her collarbones get any more distinct!) Depp is having immense fun in this role, which allows him to cut loose with his silly side as he plays Charles Mortdecai, a titled ne'er-do-well who is well known in the seedier side of the art collecting world. Deeply broke, Charlie is blackmailed into using his connections to find a stolen Goya masterpiece and, along the way, save his estate from financial ruin. The script shows a deep appreciation for broad British and Brit-based comedy, including Mike Myers' turn as Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery. There's a bit of James Bond in here, along with some Monty Python and just a touch of Inspector Clouseau. I also noticed a nod to a few Indiana Jones licks, as well. The supporting cast, which includes Paul Bettany as Mortdecai's ever-faithful manservant, Ewan McGregor as the straight-arrow school chum of both Mortdecais, and Olivia Munn as a woman of, shall we say, flexible morals, is outstanding. The humor is not for everyone, as it relies far more on nimble patter and far less on gross-out gags (although there's some of that as well), and reviews have been less than kind. I, on the other hand, thought it was great fun and laugh-out-loud funny in several places. Not a film for the ages, but this one will make a fine rental. Rated R, but a relatively soft R.

Next is the charming Paddington. I saw this in a theater that was absolutely crammed and the enjoyment of the audience was audible. Paddington is right next to Pooh in terms of "bears our children trust" and the film is a delight. Paddington comes to London when his home in Peru is destroyed by an earthquake. He is young, frightened, and alone. Trying hard to abide by a code of behavior he finds bizarre, hilarity ensues and, since he has a good heart under all that fur, things turn out all right in the end. Along the way, though, there is much trouble and misunderstanding, along with Nicole Kidman looking like a family-friendly version of Emma Frost. Paddington has some lovely things to say about what makes a family and how sometimes, in our quest to be good people and do the right thing, we can become rigid and fearful. The kids in the audience clearly loved the picture and I can wholeheartedly say I did as well. And when you go (although this, too, could wait for rental season), watch the "Lost & Found" sign at Paddington station when the bear first meets the Brown family. Rated PG for some mild scary elements, including an unhinged taxidermist.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Third Age Thursday 12

"It was the dawn of the third age of mankind, ten years after the Earth-Minbari War. The Babylon Project was a dream given form. Its goal: to prevent another war by creating a place where humans and aliens could work out their differences peacefully. It's a port of call, home away from home for diplomats, hustlers, entrepreneurs, and wanderers. Humans and aliens wrapped in two million, five hundred thousand tons of spinning metal, all alone in the night."   - Jeffrey Sinclair

Third Age Thursday is back, baby! 

And it's good to be back - the holidays demanded some time and attention and an unpleasant health issue had be be addressed, so a break was indicated. But now the New Year has been rung in, the decorations have been packed away, and a map for moving forward has been crafted, so let's get to it!

As regular readers know, Third Age Thursday is a weekly posting on this blog written to support the writing of Dreams Given Form, which will be far more than just an episode guide. This book will examine not just the five seasons of Babylon 5, but the auxiliary shows such as Crusade, the canonical novels and comics, and so on. No one has ever attempted to gather all the material concerning the complex universe created by JMS for Babylon 5 in a single printed work and our goal is to create a companion guide that will be useful to the die-hard fan who has seen every episode multiple times as well as the new fan who is just getting into the show ahead of the rumored big-screen movie which is scheduled to being production in 2016

Recently, I finished my critical rewatch of much-maligned Season 1. Yes, that's right - even among dedicated fans (and I think I'm one of them), Season 1 isn't a fave. I have to tell you, though, I have a much, MUCH deeper appreciation for it this time around. Like many fans, I really like Bruce Boxleitner's Captain John Sheridan, who takes over command of the station in Season 2 from Michael O'Hare's Commander Jeffrey Sinclair. Watching this time, however, I think Sinclair gets a bum rap. His style is different from Sheridan's - it's much more methodical and deliberate, which has some advantages in the first days of running a station that is, after all, far more of a diplomatic posting than a military one. I'm into the rewatch of Season 2 now and I still like Sheridan's more wide-open, cowboy take on things, and I'm convinced it makes for really good TV, but yeah - I like Sinclair, too. Gotta love a combat fighter pilot who was taught by Jesuits. That'll give you some depth and perspective!

I've heard people claim proudly that they just skipped Season 1 and dove straight into Season 2. I don't get that, although people are, of course, free to watch as they wish. But Babylon 5 is an intricate show full of transitions, shifting alliances, and character transformations and bounding over Season 1 means you miss so much of where these magnificently-complex characters begin and what prompts the shifts. Skipping the first season means you miss (among many other things):

  • Londo and G'Kar's hands around the other's throat (for the first time)
  • Londo's melancholy speech about "tight shoes"
  • The first mention of unrest of Mars and the threat of groups like the Home Guard
  • G'Kar's first references to G'Quan & his role in the Narn faith
  • Ivanova's exasperated explanation about the B5 "mantra"
  • The first appearance of Bester
  • The first appearance of Mr. Morden and his "associates"
  • The first appearance of Zathras
And so much of what happens in Season 1 will come back - sharply and in highly unexpected ways - much, much later. Rewatching Season 1, I was once again just impressed as all get-out by the vision JMS showed in crafting this universe. Honestly, there's great stuff in Season 1 - don't believe me? Check out this scene from the Season 1 episode "Babylon Squared." It might not make much sense in Season 1, but - boy howdy! - it's a very good scene to keep in mind as things unfold.


Saturday, January 10, 2015

Voting With Your Feet

The 2015 movie year is off to a glorious start with the wide release of Selma. What? You don't want to see a history movie? That stuff is old and boring? Besides, things have changed and we don't need to be dwelling on the past, right?

Pfffft. I'm with Faulkner on this one. The past truly isn't dead.

Selma's taking a few hits, primarily for its portrayal of LBJ. Having seen the film, I don't get that. Pres. Johnson in no way comes across as the villain of the piece; rather, he is shown to be a politician with ambitious goals. He cautions Dr. King to slow down, the time is not yet ripe for these large-scale changes in the Deep South - and Johnson fears he can't deliver the votes he needs to pass legislation that will essentially take a sledgehammer to Jim Crow. (You know, it's odd how a man's legacy gets undone. Johnson delivered on what Kennedy only had to promise - this single man muscled through the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, and strengthened both the Clean Air and the Clean Water Acts, but he also escalated Vietnam, which became his defining legacy. Likewise, Alabama governor George Wallace was a champion for the poor, but his dogged insistence on maintaining the Jim Crow status quo [hmm - the "status Crow"?] is all that people remember.)

We forget. That's one reason Selma matters. We forget the sheer, raw courage it took to walk into a low-level county office and demand the petty official accept a government form. We forget the everyday indignities that were visited on our own citizens who insisted, often with an astonishing amount of grace, on being treated as full human beings. We forget how much was at stake when citizens just wanted to walk across a bridge.

People are awful. But we can change - even if it takes TV cameras to get us to do it.

Selma is going to be a heavy-hitter during awards season. And it should. No, it's not a documentary - King's speeches are approximations, since apparently the King family would not permit the actual words to be used, having licensed them to another studio for another project. Selma is not a love-fest - people are flawed, a fact Selma does not shy away from and which I completely appreciate. I want real people, not stained-glass saints. Look, these people - the everyday people (including Viola Liuzzo, whose name you should know), not just the leadership of this movement - are American heroes who stood up for the principles this country was founded on and made such a dignified, consistent nuisance of themselves that our politicians had no choice BUT to act.

Go see this movie. Now. Today. Take your kids. Stay for the credits and the the John Legend/Common song "Glory" which reminds us all, in these dark days of #JeSuisCharlie,  "The biggest weapon is to stay peaceful."And if you don't cry in at least a few places, do me a favor and don't tell me.

Before I conclude, the end of the year brought two movies that I saw but didn't post about due to an increased amount of craziness, so let me briefly touch on those.  Exodus is Ridley Scott's attempt to create a modern version of the big-screen Bible epic. He's got a great story here - Conflict! Plagues! Gigantic crowd scenes! The desire for freeeee-dom! - yet the whole movie just never lifts off. There have been loud and frequent complaints about the casting in the film, but trust me - not the only problem here. Also, the final installment of Peter Jackson's take on Tolkien's The Hobbit was just - not very good. I'll freely admit that part of my problem is the add-ons to pad this into a trilogy (look - they're walking in New Zealand! Now there's more walking in New Zealand! Oh, look - they're riding horses in New Zealand!) and in this final installment in what really could have been one stellar film rather than three lackluster ones, things reached a head. Let me just point out two items - first, never, ever, ever use your young son as your steadying point with a gigantic arrow. I'm pretty sure the fletching would rip his shoulder to shreds. Second - while I can appreciate the over-the-topness of Billy Connelly riding a boar into battle, the same cannot be said for the elf-leader's war moose. Ugh.

Also, there were so many films at the end of the year that didn't come around here - and I try to keep this a "local" blog. Still, I intend to seek out The Imitation Game, Big Eyes, The Theory of Everything, and Boyhood to name but a few.